GR vs OXM: Does the Watchmen game suck?

Watchmen fever has struck. The unfilmable graphic novel hits theatres this week and as per usual, there’s a videogame tie-in. Instead of being based directly on the comic, Watchmen: The End is Nigh focuses on the events beforehand, namely the time when Nite Owl and Rorschach were crime fighting partners trying to take down the Underboss, a villain briefly mentioned in the comic.

The End is Nigh hits XBLA and PSN tomorrow and is a pretty straightforward beat-em-up with animated cutscenes breaking up the story. Nigh is also part 1 of an episodic game and while it lasts a decent few hours, is the game even necessary? Prequels are rarely any good in any medium, so it was quite surprising to see Senior Editor of the Official Xbox Magazine, Dan Amrich poised to defend what I think is an abomination. Read on for the catfight that transpired.

Shane: Alright, Dan Amrich, you are the Grand Poobah of Watchmen lore, is that correct?

Dan: I'm a hopeless lifelong Watchmen geek and have been for longer than most GamesRadar readers have been alive, yes. I read it back in 1990 and have spent the rest of my intervening days collecting anything that says Watchmen on it - lithographs, promotional items, the RPG manuals, crap like that. And I re-read it every so often too.

Shane: So, what you're saying is that you have more knowledge of the franchise because you're a bigger fan and that everyone who casually enjoys the novel can just go suck it?

Dan: No, I'm saying I have more knowledge of the franchise because I'm a bigger fan and I think everybody else is stupid by comparison. In other words, I'm a biased fanboy.

Shane: Sweet! That sets up my next question. Dan actually enjoy the new XBLA/PSN game The End is Nigh, don't you?

Dan: Well, sorta. As a fan, there's a basic thrill of seeing these characters walking around and beating people up. I still consider it interactive blasphemy, but I see where it comes from. This awesome literary achievement that I have elevated beyond all logical levels is going to be changed. They're going to make a game out of it, even though a game does not need to be made and should not be made. As a militant geek - even one who loves loves loves games - I don't think we need this.

They found a game scenario that fits into the Watchmen lore and history that makes a certain amount of sense. Before we meet Nite Owl and Rorschach in the book, they were partners, beating up street thugs in the late 60s and early 70s. It ain't art, but it ain't a big-head kart game either.

Shane: That's a very fair statement. I really enjoy the comic and knew the movie was trying to get made for about 20 years, so I really just kind of gave up being pissed, even though I knew in my heart that any adaptation would never fully live up to my expectations...which is true of any art/medium that goes through an adaptation process. Do you think this focus on the events before Watchmen really necessary, or do you feel this is better than shoehorning the comic itself into a game?

I mean, there aren't many actual action scenes in the comic. It’s mostly a character study of morality that's propelled by Rorschach playing detective. But do you think a game about the actual comic would've been better?

Dan: I will definitely take a side story like this over making the actual comic into a game. For one, there's no suspense. For two, part of the beauty of Watchmen is that these characters really do look and act like they have history. I'm guessing it's just me…

Shane: It is.

Dan: …but when I heard that the game begins with Underboss breaking out of Sing-Sing, I immediately thought, "Oh, yeah, Nite Owl and Rorschach busted him back in the day." They never tell you more than that in the novel - there are a few panels were Underboss is name checked - so at that point, I am okay with them playing in that section of the past. I mean, I also expect someone will feel the need to bring in all the other characters somehow, and that's risky - like, they will say it's about Nite Owl and Rorschach, but someone will feel the need to shoehorn in all the other characters, whether it makes sense in continuity or not. That's my concern.

But to try to take a novel with a lot of talking, not a lot of action, and almost no regard for linear narrative and turn that into a game? Um, no thanks. Not doing that was very smart. Likewise, I'm glad we're not playing a pirate-themed RTS just because someone felt the need to work in Tales of the Black Freighter.

Shane: Hahaha. But why build upon a back story that was so expertly crafted in the original comic in the first place? The only reason Underboss is even mentioned as an aside was just to illuminate that Rorschach and Nite Owl were crimefighters and have a history of fighting together. Fleshing out the world before Watchmen is completely unnecessary in that regard. We're given exactly what we need to know about these characters and why all of their motivations are justified. Who gives a shit if you see how 'Schach uses Rage Power to beat a goon over the head with crowbar? It doesn't work.

Dan: Well, it works as well as I think we can expect. Like I said: If they're going to do it, are they going to at least attempt to do it in a way that makes sense? I'd argue that fighting street goons makes sense for these characters. I hate to say this, but if I suddenly found out tomorrow that my job was going to be making a game based on or in the Watchmen universe, I would open the novel and start looking for those little dangling opportunities, those bits of throwaway back story that I could try to spin into something more important. I would not be so bold as to suggest "No, no - you know what would be awesome? Making up something that has nothing to do with anything. We should have them driving around in cars and shooting each other, like in Twisted Metal." THAT doesn't work. Fisticuffs? Works.

Shane: C'mon Dan. You wouldn't want an Owl Ship minigame where you have to race through checkpoints? Yeah, I agree that if being forced to make a game on the hottest comic property around where every fan goes batshit lunatic insane if you even think about changing a minute detail would make me seriously wonder what I'd even base the game around.

It seems like End is Nigh is the only respectable way this can be done. But just to touch on the last point about Watchmen the comic being a bad game, do you think that taking the detective story and putting it into the game medium might reap more rewards? Like picture an Indio Prophecy/Survival Horror take on playing detective and gathering clues.

Not saying that would be treated remotely well by any developer, but could that be better than a Final Fight bore-a-thon with Flash-animated cutscenes highlighting throwaway details only hinted at in the comic?

Dan: Hmm. I don't think so, no. I think the way the mystery unfolds is too dense and delicate. If you were making a deep mystery for a game, you would structure it differently so it would be satisfyingly deep and delicate in a way that matches the medium. I think adapting the main "someone's killing off masks" mystery for an interactive format is a recipe for disaster.

Besides, haven't we gotten past the "whatever I see in the movie I want to do in the game" mentality? Seems very 16-bit to me. "In this scene, Batman punches Riddler's thugs. We need to have a thug-punching level. Or five." I don't need it spoon-fed, like "you won't recognize this as Watchmen unless we mimic what the book and movie already told you."

Shane: I agree. My earlier point was just another idea to actually make a game property, you know, that's more in tune with the actual comic. Instead, what we are getting in real life is that scenario you've presented. The 16-bit mentality of run to this area, brawl thugs for 5 minutes to open the next room is exactly what we're getting regardless. Throwing shiny next-gen gloss doesn't remove what this game actually is.

Dan: That's true - it's Streets of Rorschach's Rage, really. The game's story takes place at some point in the early 70s, but the mechanic is straight out of 1991. And speaking of Rorschach's "rage" attack - that was totally corny. I know it's a gaming convention and the idea of a "super attack" is woven into the DNA of brawlers, but seeing him sort of bend over backwards with his hands looking like claws because he's JUST SO ANGRY was corntacular. That struck me as not in line with the character I know...but then again, I shudder to think that maybe it matches perfectly with the movie portrayal of that character, which I haven't seen. So maybe it's totally accurate in all the wrong ways. Ugh.

Shane: Yeah, it seemed like just another gimmick-y feature to pile on top of things to distract you from this brawler being too banal. Also: another reason why this game is dumb. Rorschach never needed "rage". That guy was psychotic without having to take beatings from Bad Guy #4. It’s completely unnecessary.

Dan: Rorschach is brutal in the game, and I believe that - I mean, there's that prison scene from the book, and him scaring the shit out of his informants in Happy Harry's. You don't get that reputation of fear without earning it, so seeing him beat down the bad guys with such savagery does make sense. But the rage...yeah, I agree. He was more of a simmering psychopath, very methodical. Just as brutal as the people he was fighting, but with more control. That's really the only thing that separates him from the people he fights. And something tells me none of his enemies would lean backwards and growl.

Shane: Can you tell me at what point Nite Owl becomes impotent in the game? I actually haven't finished End is Nigh, but do they cover Nite Owl's erectile dysfunction?

Dan waited too long before he answered me, seemingly because he was stumped. You know what that means? I won the debate! The End is Nigh is available tomorrow, March 4 on XBLA (1600 points) and PSN ($19.99). You can judge for yourself whether the prequel is worth it or not.

Watchmen hits theaters 03-06-09, this Friday… Wanna go?
We’re giving away 10 free ticket vouchers to see Watchmen in theaters, and that’s just the Grand Prize.

We’ve also got 10 copies of both Tales of the Black Freighter (out 03-24-09 on DVD and Blu-ray) and Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic (out NOW on DVD and Blu-ray) to hand out as well! Find out how on this week’s episode of TalkRadar,GamesRadar’s filthy, stupid podcast.

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Mar 3, 2009